The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, February 17, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Letters From Iwo Jima

Full review behind the jump

Letters From Iwo Jima

: Clint Eastwood
: screen story by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis, screenplay by Iris Yamashita, inspired by Picture Letters from Commander-in-Chief, written by Tadamichi Kurabayashi and edited by Tsuyoko Yoshido
: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg
: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Banso, Yuki Matsuzaki, Eijiro Ozaki

The grunt’s life is a familiar one in American World War II movies. The work is thankless drudgery, the Sarge is always a hardass and the food stinks. Many of the Commanders are preening bullies and the ones who talk about glory are not to be trusted, but some of them might just have the kind of wisdom and compassion you’d actually follow into battle.

Actor/Director/Producer Clint Eastwood has starred in a couple of World War II movies in his long career, and he’s already directed one in 2006 –
Flags of Our Fathers, which attempted to look beyond the battlefield of Iwo Jima to see the effect of one photograph both on the morale of a weary America, and on the three soldiers credited with a kind of superhuman heroism they felt diminished in the glare of.

But that rock in the Pacific Ocean has more stories to tell, and in an extraordinary cross-cultural effort, he’s flipped our perspective for
Letters From Iwo Jima, which tells the story of the battle for the island from the point-of-view of the Japanese soldiers tasked to defend it. Like Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, which was set aboard a Nazi submarine, it is a work so hypnotic in its focus and empathy that you forget that the people we are watching are, by all our historical reckoning, the enemy. Depicted with enough attention and understanding, we feel for a grunt facing annihilation no matter what uniform he wears.

Although the two projects began as one, there is no real cross-pollination. Characters do not leak into each others’ stories. You might see echoes, though, remembering the unnerving quiet when the Americans first landed on the beach, wondering where the Japanese were and why they weren’t shooting. And in one scene of absolute horror we witness a possible answer to the mystery of what caused a G.I. in Flags lifelong nightmares.

Eastwood, directing as always with a sensitive and classical touch, intends this story to stand on its own – this is about the Japanese, and how their cultural training wilts with the inevitability of death. General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who has been given command of the island just in time to lose it, seems to know that he will be responsible for the first loss of the war to take place on Japanese soil, though such defeatist talk is forbidden. Behind his intense determination, his curse is that he sees too well where this is going, and is trying to serve people who wish to remain blind. But he is determined to serve with honor, and force the Americans to spend as much time and effort possible along the way. He tells his men that they are not allowed to die until they’ve taken ten of the enemy with them.

Fatalism is everywhere, and it exerts an unimaginable psychic pressure on the soldiers, who have been trained to consider surrender the lowest shame. Many want to simply charge heedlessly at the enemy the moment they land – better the blaze of fake glory than the terrible waiting. The xenophobic fever that swept through their country made them feel protected from fear – now, with the ships approaching, they realize that it will not help them, and each deals with this reality in their own way. No matter how Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) slices it, it seems likely he’s going to die an awful death in a futile battle, if not by someone else’s hand then his own, since that’s what’s expected of him. He’s just a baker, a young man with a pregnant wife back home, and wary enough of the jingoistic pomp (when his draft notice was delivered, the couriers congratulated him like he’d won a contest) to question if surrender is really so tragic a dishonor.

He is our proxy in this movie, and Kazunari (a pop star back in Japan) gives a performance that is disarmingly vulnerable – trying his best, but resigned that no matter what he does, some larger force is likely to push him in a worse direction. Watch how relieved he is when Kuribayashi rescues him from the sweaty work of digging useless trenches on the beach. Imagine how he feels, then, when his new job is digging tunnels in the rock.

The story passes from Kuribayashi’s circle to Saigo’s and back – they intersect often enough that near the end, as the numbers are dwindling and the food gone, the General huffs “You again?”, and it plays as true gallows humor. Both write letters to their families. Saigo’s are full of failed attempts to soften the hopelessness, while the General, either because he is protecting his family’s feelings or because he is at peace with his fate, perhaps both, focuses on postcard descriptions and mundane domestic reminders. He is determined to stay a husband and father until the end. He’s an educated man who has been to America and befriended some of its military brass. On Iwo Jima he bonds with a junior officer, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who competed in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Both have the ability to see the enemy as human and they are grateful for the understanding.

This is both the purpose of Letters From Iwo Jima, one of the year’s best films, and its theme. First-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita, under the guidance of Oscar-winner Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) is able to weave these truths into multiple storylines without ever making the piece ideologically heavy-handed, it allows Eastwood’s no-guff aesthetic to achieve poetic gracefulness. What you see across the battlefield affects your actions – if you see a faceless monster, reflection or restraint is unthinkable. If you see someone who is as frightened, hungry, and far from those they love as you are, then you have a chance to remember that the purpose of the battle is to defeat your opponent, and this is not always the same thing as killing him.

The conflicts between Kurabayashi and his masters back home, or the pompous officers who don’t trust him; the conflicts between Saigo and the superiors who seem desperate to take him with them on their own irrational self-destruction, these things are about whether you think sympathy and reason are weaknesses. Wars are often the work of leaders who think these very things and mobs who give their will over to them. From the way prisoners are treated to the way one soldier’s inability to follow a sadistic order put him in this doomed place, doing what is right in this movie does not always guarantee you a happy ending; but, the movie argues with seasoned compassion, it is still what is right.


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